Film & Television

The pet politics in ‘Rat Film’ and ‘The Challenge’

By Keva York
From rats in Baltimore to competitive falconry in Qatar, two documentaries at the Melbourne International Film Festival explored the idea of animal as status symbol

Rat Film kicks off with lo-fi documentary footage of the incident that served as filmmaker Theo Anthony’s inspiration: a handheld camera noses around a dark alley lined with garbage cans, searching out the source of a muffled, intermittent thudding noise. The camera approaches one can with the lid not quite on, peering into its murky depths. Inside, a rat with pink points of light for eyes repeatedly scrabbles up and slides down the wall of the can, coming straight at the camera lens, freedom just out of reach. “The adult Norway rat can jump 32 inches high,” advises a smooth, Siri-esque voice-over. “Baltimore City trash cans are 34 inches high.” The sequence takes on an unexpected poignancy as the Sisyphean nature of the rat’s struggle becomes apparent.

The lowly rat is an unlikely artistic muse, but Anthony perceived metaphorical significance in the mini-drama he discovered playing out in his garbage can; a parable about the systemic barriers that keep people – those in the lower classes – from escaping the social stratum they find themselves born into. Anthony’s ambitious essay film explores the relationship between the rodent and human populations of his native Baltimore, revealing the parallels between the plight of the titular creatures and that of the disenfranchised individuals who live in the neighbourhoods the rats infest. Zigzagging between historical, scientific and philosophical modes, between archival materials, clunky computer-game imagery and interviews with locals, Rat Film shows Baltimore to be a city divided along racial and economic lines: lines that have remained remarkably consistent over the course of the past century – and not by chance.

As noted by the affable but savvy exterminator Harold Edmond, one of the film’s central figures, rats proliferate “in the places where the most uneducated people are, the ones who have the least … the people who have no dreams, no aspirations – just survival”. Whether regarded as pests or pets, a relationship with rodents is the inheritance of the poor. Anthony documents these relationships in a number of set pieces spotlighting individuals and their unique rat-centric rituals. In one, a bald middle-aged man sits on a lumpy couch, three domestic rats huddled on his shoulders. Staring into the camera, he solemnly picks up a wooden flute and plays a few bars of melancholy melody. In another, two friends demonstrate an elaborate rat-baiting scheme involving peanut butter, turkey, a fishing rod, a baseball bat and a fair amount of waiting around. For the fringe dwellers of Baltimore, rats can be entertained, or they can be entertainment.

Although set in Qatar, thousands of kilometres from Baltimore – geographically, culturally – Yuri Ancarani’s The Challenge is also concerned with a highly codified inter-species relationship, and one that is demonstrative of class: the documentary / art film takes as its subject a falconry competition, showcasing the world of decadence that revolves around the prized birds. Although generally considered to be an anachronistic pursuit in the West – enjoyed only by long-dead mediaeval nobles and fictional eccentrics such as Richie Tenenbaum – the ancient art lives on in the Middle East as an extreme luxury sport. Whereas in Rat Film Anthony deploys the rat as an avatar of poverty, the falcon in The Challenge embodies the excesses of wealth – each creature becoming a symbol of status in its own right.

Ancarani charts the journey of a handful of participants – human and avian – on their cross-country pilgrimage to the site of the competition. And boy, do they travel in style. One man leads a posse through the desert astride a golden motorbike. Another cruises in his slick black Lamborghini, a cheetah lounging in the passenger seat as casually as would your family dog. As for the birds themselves, they are transported via private jet. There is something wonderfully redundant about the idea of birds travelling by plane: flying first class rather than simply flying. In a particularly arresting sequence, a sheikh watches over a handful of hooded falcons aboard a small customised aircraft, rows of astroturfed perches replacing the customary seats. The sheikh appears less as their proprietor and more as an attendant as he takes one of his charges onto his gloved hand, tenderly removes its hood, strokes its feathers, feeds it.

The Challenge unfolds as a series of these surreal tableaux: with no narrator to provide interpretation or explanation, the imagery remains steadfastly alien – the paucity of dialogue and score also contributing to the eerie ambience. The film is meditative rather than informative; unlike Rat Film, it is an aesthetic rather than explicitly critical exercise. Ancarani favours lengthy fixed shots and bold compositions, capturing the expanse and radiance of the Qatari desert. Anthony’s Baltimore, by contrast, is all cluttered interiors and dingy interstitial spaces: the formal spareness of The Challenge counters Rat Film’s maximalist collage. However, despite their differences, a sense of ceremony prevails in both films. The subjects in each sequence perform for – if not to – the camera, enacting a kind of pet politics.

The Challenge ends with the competition under way, a falcon in hot pursuit of a pigeon. But the falcon remains out of frame: the camera is attached to the bird as it soars through the sky, providing a literal bird’s-eye view of the hunt. The shot jerks and skitters across the landscape below, making it difficult to tell whether the falcon is closing in on its prey – only occasionally does the pigeon lurch into view. At last, the falcon latches on to it and swoops towards the ground, the camera swerving crazily – the viewer is afforded only blurred glimpses of feathers and blood as confirmation of the pigeon’s fate.

Rat Film’s final scene is similarly macabre: in a glass tank, a baby rat – naked, pink, blind – wriggles weakly in the jaws of a snake. The outcome is inevitable but the predator is slow, methodical: over the course of one and a half painful minutes, the rat disappears into the snake’s expanding maw. Where the falcon is affirmed as victor, the rat is presented as victim. The acts of “conspicuous consumption” with which both films close place their animal subjects and their human ones on a food chain.

Keva York

Keva York is a writer and film critic. She has contributed to 4:3 and Senses of Cinema.

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